Are Suitcase Nukes on the Loose? (Summary)

Scott Parrish
John Lepingwell
November 1997

General Aleksandr Lebed’s recent allegation that some former Soviet suitcase size nuclear weapons may be missing has generated a storm of negative media commentary in Moscow and concern and unease in Washington. Even though many contradictory reports have been published, some patterns are discernable that provide important clues to unraveling the story of the “suitcase nukes.”

In a meeting with a US Congressional delegation in May 1997, and again in an interview broadcast on 60 Minutes on 7 September 1997, Lebed claimed that the Soviet Union created perhaps one hundred atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), or atomic land mines. These low-yield (circa 1 kiloton) devices were to be used by special forces for wartime sabotage and thus were small, portable, and not equipped with standard safety devices to prevent unauthorized detonation. According to Lebed, some of the ADMs were deployed in the former Soviet republics, and might not have been returned to Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. During his short tenure as Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Lebed started an investigation into the whereabouts of these weapons, but was fired by President Yeltsin before the investigation was completed.

Lebed’s statements are not the first indication that the Soviet Union built ADMs, or that some might have gone astray. In January 1996, the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies received information from a Russian presidential advisor that an unspecified number of ADMs had been manufactured in the 1970s for the KGB. Indeed, in the wake of Lebed’s charges, former Russian presidential advisor Aleksey Yablokov told a US Congressional subcommittee on 2 October 1997 that he was “absolutely sure” that ADMs had been built in the 1970s for the KGB’s special forces, and that these weapons were not included in the Russian Ministry of Defense nuclear weapons inventory nor covered by its accounting and control systems. Even earlier, in the summer of 1995, the Russian press published several articles claiming that Chechen separatists had either obtained, or tried to obtain, small nuclear weapons. Lebed’s claims are thus not completely new, but they are noteworthy because he was in a position to gain access to information on such weapons.

Official Russian reactions to Lebed’s statements were negative and derisory. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin termed Lebed’s allegations “absolute absurdity,” while a presidential spokesman said “such superfantasies can only be the product of a diseased imagination.” But as the official denials continued, they became increasingly self-contradictory and less credible. Some Russian military and atomic energy officials denied that the Soviet Union had ever created ADMs, and even stated that such weapons were either technically impossible, or prohibitively expensive. Others admitted that such weapons might have existed, but that they were all accounted for and under strict control. All agreed, however, that Lebed’s claims were motivated by his desire to regain the political limelight and prepare for a future presidential campaign.

The official denials may well have been orchestrated and coordinated to impugn Lebed’s reputation and reliability. If so, they were poorly conceived and raised more questions than they answered. Seemingly authoritative statements by Russian officials that portable ADMs are technically infeasible are belied by the fact that the United States built hundreds of them during the 1960s. The Soviet Union certainly had the technical capability to create portable ADMs, and may well have had military requirements to do so. Soviet strategy included diversionary actions and special force operations behind enemy lines, and ADMs might well have been stockpiled for use in a nuclear war. Certainly, if the United States developed and deployed ADMs it would be unusual for the Soviet Union not to follow suit. Thus, the claims that the Soviet Union did not produce ADMs are not convincing.

The claim that all nuclear weapons are accounted for is perhaps more credible, but is impossible to confirm. The misleading statements on the technical feasibility of ADMs do not bolster confidence in the claims that all Russian nuclear weapons are securely stored. However, most reports of the loss or theft of nuclear weapons have turned out to be based on weak evidence. The articles on nuclear theft that appeared in the Russian press in mid-1995 were apparently partly based on a report in the extreme right-wing Russian newspaper Zavtra (which in turn evidently was inspired by an article in the Russian-language edition of Soldier of Fortune, which claimed that suitcase nukes were smuggled through Lithuania to Iraq and possibly other countries). Zavtra‘s correspondent claimed to have met with a former Chechen “agent” who participated in the diversion of two suitcase-size nuclear weapons to Chechnya in 1992. To bolster its claim, Zavtra published the technical details of the devices. However, the technical details appear to be inaccurate, and weaken, rather than strengthen, the report’s credibility. After publishing the article, the Zavtra correspondent was abducted, beaten, and threatened with death if he pursued the story. But after reporting the abduction, Zavtra retracted the original article, claiming that the meeting with the agent, and the subsequent beating, had been perpetrated by Chechen agents who hoped that rumors of nuclear weapons in Chechnya would strengthen Chechnya’s hand in negotiations with Moscow. Nevertheless, the original article triggered a string of media reports and speculation concerning nuclear weapons in Chechnya, eventually prompting an explicit denial of the story by Chechen military leader Shamil Basayev. Thus, while there have been a number of reports of the smuggling of portable nuclear weapons, the most publicized reports do not seem to be based on firm evidence, and have been propounded by sources of dubious reliability.

Lebed’s charges have therefore not been adequately dismissed by his critics, nor fully substantiated by his supporters. The claims that the Soviet Union never built ADMs ring hollow, but neither is there any solid evidence indicating the loss or diversion of such weapons. This does not mean that the threat of diversion does not exist, though. The social, political, and economic stresses that wrack Russia provide strong incentives for military “insiders” to steal nuclear weapons. While organizing such a theft would be extremely difficult, the consequences of a successful theft would be disastrous. Increasing security at nuclear weapons facilities, and especially at civilian nuclear facilities with weapons-grade fissile material, must therefore be at the forefront of the US-Russian security agenda. Increased work in this regard may help to ensure that stories of weapons or fissile material diversion remain fiction, and do not become fact.

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